The Star Malaysia - Star2
Stories between the folds
In a touring exhibit in Kuala Lumpur, a group of visual artists explore Chinese folding book art and tradition.
CLOSE to ground level at The Godown arts space in Kuala Lumpur, you’d find a collection of folding books that zigzag their way around the space. Many of these books stretch out to over 3m when open. Most of them have travelled the world.
A few of them are presented as digital works.
This is the Buka Buku exhibition, a collaboration between The Godown and Open Books, a collective of artists and curators from Wales and China comprising Mary Husted, Maggie James and Joe Zhu.
With the concept of the Chinese folding book at its core, the Open Books art exhibition, which began in 2010, travels from country to country, sharing these books with an international audience.
In each country, new works by local artists are added to the collection.
“I thought it very inspiring that although the focus of the artworks is the Chinese folding book, the artists from diverse cultures and backgrounds are each encouraged to utilise materials and methodologies that reflect their personal art practice to create the new artworks,” says Lim Wan Yee, founder of The Godown.
“The exploration of how we find common ground between these artists who come from long and differing traditions, and the potential for cultural exchange and mutual enrichment is an essential part of the Open Books project. This ties in very nicely with The Godown’s own vision of creating a more sustainable way of living through inclusivity, collaboration and greater cooperation in a world that has become increasingly polarised,” she adds.
For the exhibition’s debut Malaysian show in KL, local artists (Lim Eu Jin, Shaman Tearoom, Pangrok Sulap and Ang Xia Yi) as well as artists from China and India were paired with artists from Wales, to create new works for this project.
The pandemic situation last year also led to the Buka Buku creative process and ideas being developed online.
“Buka Buku celebrates many firsts, including displaying digital works created by Ang Xia Yi, Lim Eu Jin, Pangrok Sulap and Shaman Tearoom who all participated in an eight-week online residency, a first of its kind in Open Books’ history.
“They are the first Malaysian artists to be a part of Open Books’ wider network of international artists, curators and educators. The exhibition is the first time the folding books have travelled to South-east Asia and shown in Malaysia,” says Lim.
At The Godown, Buka Buka has 66 works on display, comprising 58 physical books and eight digital works. Of these, 44 works are on loan from Open Books and form part of their touring collection.
The rest of the works are new, including all the digital works. Some of the digital works are accompanied by physical works.
When Open Books continues on its journey later this year, it will bring with it all the new works created for this edition at The Godown.
“Visitors will see on display the amazing results of how the folding book has been reinterpreted by these artists from diverse cultures and backgrounds. It is truly a celebration of cross-cultural exchange, collaboration and ‘openness’,” says Lim.
Finding common ground
Eu Jin and Maggie James’ Journey aims to represent the mood, emotion, and characters of two chosen journeys in KL and Cardiff, both venues different in their context and climate, but sharing elements like the hills, rivers and vegetation.
“I’ve enjoyed the whole process of the project, especially how the investigation and the research process brought me back to the streets of KL despite working most parts of the project from home under the lockdown. I also enjoy how we moved between the digital and manual processes, back and forth throughout the project even though we were really just expecting this to be a heavily digital-dependent project from the beginning.
“In my point of view, these processes that loop between the digital and manual usually create the best kind of work,” says Eu Jin, who is known for his research of narratives within alternative architectural drawings.
He notes that adapting to the situation and finding a new form of Chinese folding books, in this case meant looking for the best way to represent the work on screen and how they can be best experienced digitally across platforms.
“We have also added a sound element in the video which is considerably unconventional to the traditional form,” he says.
Eu Jin is thinking about continuing with his exploration of this slice of the city in a physical model to accompany the drawings and video.
“These could be a potential medium for future studies. It will be nice to also present these to the past and current students (for instance, St John’s Institution, St John’s Primary School, Convent Bukit Nanas or other institutions in the area) who have had this Bukit Nanas journey embedded in their childhood memories and get their thoughts on it. Maybe they will have even more new ideas on this subject too,” he says.
Shaman Tearoom and Chris Bird-jones’s In A Blackout Night We Talked About The Matter Of Being contemplates on the theme of “being” in this short film or “book”, shot in KL and Swansea in Wales.
“The Chinese folding book is in pages and yet they are all within one (long) page. To us, it resembles a movie which is formed by different scenes but each scene is part of the story as you unfold it. We extracted this very essence of the folding book and applied it in our short film, presented as our digital book,” says Shaman Tearoom (Ai Wei Foo and Kent Lee).
In this short film, the “dialogue” are snippets of conversations, the artists’ answers based on their list of questions in relation to the theme.
Some of those questions are metaphorical: What if ‘being’ was a person? Or if ‘being’ could be a colour?
“Though ‘being’ might be a philosophical idea, it is also cultural and perhaps societal. In this collaboration with Chris Bird-jones, it was intriguing to draw this relationship between us who were born and raised in South-east Asia and Chris, in the UK,” the Malaysian artists say in statement.
Despite being worlds apart, Sabah’s Pangrok Sulap (represented by Adi Helmi Jaini) and Valerie Coffin Price (from Wales) share an appreciation towards the natural world as seen in their works. Whether it be through banyan trees found by chance or through birch woods frequented on walks, both artists have dove into tales that lurk around in these landscapes.
A fresh perspective
Lim describes Buka Buku as not just a book exhibition, but a book art exhibition – and one with a collection of works that is unique, diverse and reflects the background and origin of their creators from around the world.
“Our team has put a lot of thought into how to showcase these artworks in a way which would appeal not just to the arts community but also to a more mass audience, in keeping with The Godown’s philosophy of enriching lives by making the arts accessible to all,” she says.
For starters, the Buka Buku name, a literal translation of the original name of the exhibition, was chosen for its playful assonance and appeal to a local audience.
The entire length and breadth of The Godown’s main hall is used to stretch out each artwork, to allow each visitor to encounter and experience the works to their full extent.
“Other ideas to achieve a more intimate and friendly setting include our use of recycled and everyday materials for our meandering ‘furniture’, lowering the height of each display to invite closer scrutiny by visitors and a no shoes policy.
“We had placed guest books which were themselves folding books for visitors to share their experience about Buka Buku and this brought out the artistic side of our visitors, who doodled and
sketched in them. We had hoped that these somewhat unconventional measures would give greater freedom to our visitors to enjoy the exhibition and encourage them to take their time and even, to visit the exhibition a few times,” she adds.
Besides the exhibition, Buka Buku has workshops, performances and artist talks that are open to the public this month.
On Jan 8 and 9, Shaman Tearoom will present an interactive performance.
A sharing session with Eu Jin will be held at a later date.
Since its opening last month, Lim shares that the response to Buka Buku has been great and the daily booking slots are filling up fast.
“Many have come to know about the exhibition through word of mouth and social media, which is a testament to the uniqueness of the artworks. We have been absolutely thrilled to observe visitors from all backgrounds getting up close to the artworks and taking their time to enjoy them, and leaving the exhibition with a sense of curiosity and openness,” concludes Lim.
The Buka Buku show in KL ends on Jan 16. It is supported by Mycreative Ventures.